The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Dan Sallitt

Dan Sallitt 
The structure of the dream has been phased out, supplanted by the discontinuous dramatic passion of young adulthood. Was there ever a dream, a spell or a princess? 

Contributed to: LA Reader, Chicago Reader, Mubi, Moving Image source, Film Journal, Masters of Cinema, Wide Angle, 24FPS, Modern Times, Nashville Scene, Slate, Senses of Cinema, Chemical Imbalance. Much of his writing has been collected here and here

Noted Champion of: Catherine Breillat ("Along with F. X. Feeney at the LA Weekly, I may have given Breillat her first rave reviews when Tapage Nocturune played Filmex in 1981"), Nils Malmros ("Along with Blake Lucas and Bob Fukuyama I've been a big supporter since Filmex 1983"), Alan Clarke, Alan Rudolph, Joe Swanberg ("I was more or less the whole Joe Swanberg cheerleading squad until Richard Brody got on the case"), Howard Hawks. 

Influences: "Andre Bazin above all, but along the way Andrew Sarris, Robin Wood, and Truffaut."

Like a lot of critics, Wilkes-Barre, PA born Dan Sallitt (July 27th, 1955-) has a second life as a filmmaker. After getting a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard in 1976, he moved to Los Angeles to get his Masters in Screenwriting at UCLA, which he received in 1979. His directing career would wait a few years while he honed his critical voice. He started writing for zines and had his first piece published (on Hitchcock) for the magazine Wide Angle in 1980. Right around that time he briefly took over as lead critic at the LA Reader when critic Myron Meisel took a leave of absence. He continued as a second-string Reader critic after Meisel's return, also contributing to its sister paper the Chicago Reader; in 1983, he assumed the first-string gig full-time. During this time he wrote "lots and lots of 1000-word articles and 150-to-250-word blurbs, tons of writing that mostly has never been digitized...I wrote on Alan Rudolph for the Toronto Film Fest: a 4-page article that was in their program, a 40-page monograph that wasn't published." In 1985 he make his first feature Polly Perverse Strikes Again!, which along with the rest of his canon was recently revived at the Anthology Film Archive. The film was completed in 1986 which also signaled a break from criticism. Working other jobs for ten years following Polly, during which time his critical output is slim, he saved money enough to make his second feature Honeymoon (1998). In 1999 he discovers online film communities and his interest in criticism is slowly rekindled. "After I started making Internet friends, the writing started picking up." Soon he found himself writing for Slate and doing coverage of the Toronto Film Festival for Sight & Sound and he's been contributing steadily to website and online journals ever since. And thankfully he's found time to make two new films, All The Ships At Sea in 2004 and the transcendent The Unspeakable Act in 2012. Michał Oleszczyk: He is a master of the discreet: everything from costume details through props to his fondness for symmetry and rectangular shapes (characters are typically seen framed by doors or windows), is both subtle and consistent.

"My home page is pretty up to date on most of my writing in the 2000-2009 period: a few pieces I like that were commissioned by Gregg Rickman for comedy and sci-fi compilations, some decent stuff for Zach Campbell and Gabe Klinger's 24fps site, a few Nashville Scene pieces via Jim Ridley, a fair amount of writing for Danny Kasman at MUBI starting in 2008, one-off pieces for Rick Curnutte in the Film Journal and Dennis Lim at Moving Image Source.  Off the net, Chris Fujiwara asked me to do some essays for his Defining Moments In Movies book, and a few essays on Ford and Edwards for the FIPRESCI web site; and Craig Keller has commissioned a bunch of stuff for Masters of Cinema DVD releases that's regrettably hard to get: a nice 100-page roundtable on Keaton short films, two Pialat essays, a McCarey essay.  The last thing I did was a Pema Tseden essay for the Punto de Vista festival that's about to be put online. I'm also really into this Naruse monograph that I'm secretly updating a bit at a time, though I've already self-published it: in a while it will be a reasonably polished monograph on all extant Naruse. I have grateful memories of being edited by Michael Lenehan (at the Chicago Reader) and Chris Fujiwara."

Speaking personally, Sallitt is one of the most interesting critics alive. If he seems a man apart today with his rigorous mise-en-scene deconstruction and championing of Howard Hawks, I get the feeling he would have been the star critic at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 50s, the one everyone remembered above the flashier likes of Godard. His understanding of film dynamics, of tone and technique, of the importance of gesture, is as deep as blood or bone. He keeps a busy schedule of rep screenings in New York but writes only about the films and directors that speak his language. He's often most riveting when a film doesn't quite work, as in this discussion of the divergent sexual 'currents' of the movie Good Dick. One discovers entirely new ways of thinking about art reading his best criticism.

He converses with film in a scholar's diction but he has a grace and openness, a careful understanding of the world, usually only found in Japanese prose poets. He grapples with issues typically outside the focus of a weekly reviewer, dealing with a film as it fits into a body of work, building up relationships with artists along the way and taking into consideration the analysis that has defined the films in the past (his Hawks reviews are great summaries of the history of Hawks criticism). Look at the many threads and ideas introduced in this brief review of Isild Le Besco's Bas-fonds: I hope Le Besco's third film got more attention in France than it has in the US. Here she manages a trick that only a major director can pull off: to depict monstrous behavior but not building dramatic expectations around it, giving herself the flexibility to shift tones at will and bring harmony out of great dissonance. That second sentence touches on intentions dramatic, technical and spiritual, hinting that her greatness lies in her orchestrating all three. It's one sentence and yet it's one of the best reviews I've ever read. Something about shifting from the tangible ("monstrous behavior," "dramatic expectations,") and intangible ("flexibility," "Harmony from great dissonance") is uniquely his. I've long thought of him as the Kenji Mizoguchi of film criticism (I also see a little of the master's gentle hand in Sallitt's films too, though that's another conversation). 

On Amoureuse:

A typically intense audience with the extraordinary Monsieur Doillon, who commandeers the cinema in the name of his fantasies of life lived at the edge of emotional rapture and collapse.

On A Girl In Every Port:

The film probably seems more weirdly personal today than it did to audiences of the time. Contemporary viewers would have noted the film's considerable debt to the success of the 1926 What Price Glory? (also starring Victor McLaglen), another story of two tough guys whose friendship takes precedence over the women for which they compete. Certainly Hawks dials up the “love story between two men” angle (Hawks’ phrase) by having his male protagonists enact a number of the dramatic conventions of love stories. (Robin Wood long ago noted Hawks’ willingness to give the same dialogue or situations to both men and women in different movies.) Yet, without being able to provide citations, I have the impression that cinema culture was, more then than in recent decades, permeated with a sense that the heterosexual love story was a concession to the commercial, and that reducing or eliminating the feminine aspect was a mark of integrity. Perhaps Hawks was able to hide his polymorphous perversity in plain sight. In any case, no contemporary review that I’ve read is fazed by the fervor of the protagonists’ friendship...One of the pleasures of A Girl in Every Port is seeing Hawks successfully take on the silent tradition of physical comedy. The first half of the film is essentially one bar fight or drinking scene after another, and where a Walsh or a Wellman would let show some of their identification with the emotional intensity of the physical life, Hawks gravitates naturally to a Keaton-like comic distance. His typical reliance on long shots with a margin of space around the human figure lends itself well to physical comedy, and the roughneck subject matter encourages in him a comic cruelty that is perhaps closer to Arbuckle than Keaton. 

On Pema Tseden: 

Pema Tseden’s misfortune is that he will likely be pigeonholed for the foreseeable future as the most important Tibetan filmmaker; whereas he required only a few films to establish himself as one of the best and most confident filmmakers anywhere in the world....The sometimes offputting primitivism of Tseden’s camera in The Search gradually creates a sense that the world through which the film moves, and the seemingly unlimited supply of creative talent that springs unbidden from the landscape of the Tibetan plateau, are the film’s true frame of reference, with the narrative relegated to little more than a winking pretext. Near film’s end, Tseden crystallizes his priorities in an astonishing two-and-a-half-minute take that deprecates the narrative even more ruthlessly than the last shot of Antonioni’s The Passenger - so much so that it’s possible to see The Search multiple times without even realizing that the climax of the story is occurring. In the yard of the school where Kathub Tashi teaches, Tseden stages a folk dance on a vast scale, with several large circles of student dancers arrayed from near the foreground of the shot to the extreme background, all moving to the sound of music broadcast throughout the space by mounted speakers in the yard, so that the music is partly obscured by distance, echo and chatter. On the right side of this magical vista, far away from the camera, the long-awaited meeting between A Je Drobe and Kathub Tashi finally occurs, midwifed by the film crew; one at a time, both the young people exit frame right, giving even the most focused viewer no more than a bare sense that the reunion did not result in a romantic clinch and a happy ending.

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